Many of us have a love-hate relationship with mission statements. For leaders, they can be valuable tools to keep a large organization, multiple offices or a new company focused on the same core ideas. For consultants, advisory firms and organization development experts, they are often the starting point for developing strategic plans, repairing negative issues or building corporate culture.

Yet, unless the organization is in some sort of transitional phase, mission statements often collect dust on the shelf. Some recent research, however, underscores the importance of the words used in mission statements.

Here is a summary of the research as well as tips for ensuring the mission statement is still aligned with our desired culture.

Good Fortune

As reported in Fortune Magazine, in part one of the study, researchers looked at mission statements from large organizations and grouped the phrasing included therein into a set of language categories they created.

Then, they looked at Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints and found that the companies with EEOC complaints tended to have what they called locomotive or action language and those with no complaints tended to include more assessment or thoughtful language.

In the second part of the study, participants were told they were managers and given mission statements and scenarios. The managers that had mission statements with more action language would act in a discriminatory way while those with assessment language did not.

Drawing boards

This does not mean we all have to go back to the drawing board with our mission statements. In his article, “If I read one more platitude-filled mission statement, I’ll scream,” Greg McKeown provides readers with a list of mission statements and asks them to match each with a company on the corresponding list.

As the article title implies, it is difficult for the reader to discern the difference in mission statements despite the major differences in the companies. In other words, overly simple platitudes that do not represent the core of the business do not work, either.

Next steps

Despite seeming like useless phrases no one pays attention to, the importance of mission statements will persist. Whether our organizations are in transition or not, this new research provides a great reason to take a quick look at the language we use to represent the company, internally and externally.

As leaders, we should simply ask ourselves whether it reflects the type of culture we are trying to build, sustain or create.

Yet, the language analysis the study provides is just a starting point. There are plenty of excellent resources on how to craft and update a mission statement. In addition to reviewing those, we can also take a practical look at when and how we reinforce the message.

In other words, where are employees exposed to it? When do leaders refer to it? The more frequently and meaningfully both happen, the more likely it is to impact our workplace.

The bottom line is that taking the time to review and update our mission statements is a worthwhile task to ensure they truly align with our culture.